By Lisa Curtis and Dean Cheng
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India for the India-US Strategic Dialogue talks provides an opportunity for the US to take India’s pulse on China and to discuss new diplomatic and security initiatives that will contribute to maintaining a stable balance of power in Asia.
The US should demonstrate support for Indian military modernisation and enhanced US–Indian defence ties. Despite US disappointment over India’s decision to de-select two American companies from its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition, the US is bound to conclude other major defence deals with India as it pursues an ambitious defence modernization campaign, which includes spending plans of around $35 billion over the next five years.
Indeed, this year, the two sides finalised a deal worth nearly $4 billion for the US to provide India with C-17 aircraft to give India the second-largest C-17 fleet in the world. Enhancing Indo–US cooperation in maritime security in the Indian Ocean region is also an area of mutual interest that is ripe for new initiatives.
The China angle
India’s rejection of the MMRCA has added a dose of realism to Indo–US relations and reminded US officials that the burgeoning partnership will not always reach the full expectations of either side. Still, the growing strategic challenge presented by a rising China will inevitably drive the US and India to increase cooperation in defence and other key sectors, such as space, maritime security, and nuclear non-proliferation.
India is keeping a wary eye on China’s rapid global ascent. Unresolved border issues that resulted in the Sino–Indian War of 1962 have been heating up again in recent years. Indian policymakers are scrambling to develop effective policies to cope with a rising China by simultaneously pursuing both a robust diplomatic strategy aimed at encouraging peaceful resolution of border disputes and forging strong trade and economic ties and an ambitious military modernization campaign that will build Indian air, naval, and missile capabilities.
By bolstering its naval assets, India will solidify its position in the Indian Ocean and enhance its ability to project power into the Asia Pacific. New Delhi also will continue to boost its medium-range missile programs to deter Beijing and to strengthen its air capabilities to deal with potential flare-ups along their disputed borders.
Meanwhile, China has also been paying increasing attention to India. China’s interests on its southern flank have led the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to strengthen its forces in the Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions bordering India.
The US must keep a watchful eye on the trend lines in Sino–Indian relations and factor these into its overall strategies in the broader Asia region. A strong India able to hold its own against China is in America’s interest.
China’s increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas over the past year has been accompanied by a hardening position on its border disputes with India. Last summer, India took the unprecedented step of suspending military ties with China in response to Beijing’s refusal to grant a visa to an Indian Army general serving in Jammu and Kashmir. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi last December helped tamp down the disagreement, and military contacts have since resumed. Still, the incident shows the fragility of the Sino–Indian rapprochement and the potential for deepening tensions over the unresolved border issues to escalate.
What Drives Sino–Indian Competition?
The drivers of the current Indian–Chinese rivalry are varied and complex. While China’s economy is several times larger than India’s and its conventional military capabilities today outstrip India’s by almost any comparison, Beijing has begun to take notice of India’s growing global political and economic clout, as well as the broad-based American support for expanding strategic ties with India.
For its part, India, long suspicious of China’s close relations and military support for Pakistan, views an increased Chinese presence in northern Pakistan and expanded civil nuclear cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad as particularly worrisome. Indian military strategists believe they must plan for the possibility of a two-front war with Pakistan and China even as they actively seek dialogues with both to diminish the chances of such a dire scenario.
At the same time, Chinese assessments of Indian military planning suggest a view in Beijing that New Delhi sees China as a major threat. One Chinese assessment concludes that the Indian military sees Pakistan as the main operational opponent and China as a potential operational opponent. It also describes the Indians as seeing China and Pakistan as closely aligned in threatening India.
The rivalry is also driven by the rapidly expanding resource requirements of each country, whose economies continue to grow steadily despite the global economic downturn. Competition over energy and water resources will increasingly shape the contours of their competition, as will each country’s efforts to expand trade and economic relations with countries that are in the other’s traditional sphere of influence.
Indian expert observers do not interpret China’s new-found assertiveness as preparation for imminent conflict, and they continue to calculate that the overall probability of another Sino–Indian war is low. However, they believe China may be trying to enhance its bargaining position in the ongoing border negotiations. The Indian observers note that incursions across the disputed borders are likely aimed at gaining tactical advantage to bolster Chinese territorial claims.
What the US Should Do
India must include the potential threat of conflict erupting over its disputed borders with China in its security planning and projections. While Pakistan presents the most immediate threat to India, Indian strategists increasingly view China as the most important long-term security challenge. Long-standing China–Pakistan security ties are a continuing source of angst in New Delhi and reminder of a potential two-front war. While India seeks to avoid conflict with China, Indian military planners also assess that they need to develop sufficient capabilities to deter an increasingly powerful and assertive China.
The US should pursue robust strategic and military engagement with India in order to encourage a stable balance of power in Asia that prevents China from dominating the region and surrounding seas. New Delhi—not unlike many other capitals in Asia—balks at the idea of being part of an American-led China “containment” strategy. Some Indian strategists even favour a go-slow approach to the US–Indian partnership in order to avoid raising Chinese ire. But China’s recent posturing on its border disputes with India leaves New Delhi few options other than to play all the strategic cards at its disposal, including deepening and expanding ties with the US. One must also calculate that Chinese alarms over “containment” may in part be a tactic to prevent closer Indian cooperation with nations in the Pacific, including the US.
The partnership between the US and India will almost certainly never develop into an “alliance,” given India’s core foreign policy goal of maintaining its “strategic autonomy.” But an elevated partnership that gives a nod to India’s growing political, economic, and military strength would signal a solidarity that could help deter Chinese military aggression and temper China’s ambitions to revise borders in its favour.
The US and India share a broad strategic interest in setting limits on China’s geopolitical horizons. They can work together to support mutually reinforcing goals without ever becoming “allies” in the traditional sense. To this end, the US should:
Support India’s military modernisation campaign, including its quest for increasingly sophisticated technologies related to its strategic weapons programs.
Develop new initiatives for keeping the Indian Ocean safe and secure, and continue to work with India on maritime security while also seeking to convince New Delhi of the merits of adding the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Australia to a forum like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. Additionally, the US should consider engaging the Indian Navy in such areas as anti-submarine warfare training and ocean surveillance capabilities. Improvements in these areas would help to reassure India, especially in the event of a growing PLA naval presence.
Remain engaged with the smaller South Asian states and fully exercise its observer role in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The US needs to remain focused on its relations with Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh so that these nations do not perceive China as the main economic and political game in town. India is clearly the dominant power in South Asia, but China is making new inroads with these countries that could come at the expense of stability and democratic trends in the region.
Increase cooperation with India to address cyber security threats. The two sides should explore joint efforts to monitor foreign investments in critical Internet technologies and telecommunications in order to establish a means of sharing pertinent cyber threat and vulnerability information to enhance the mutual security of their networks.
Keep strategic messaging in the region consistent. The Administration faltered in 2009 when it promoted U.S.–China “cooperation” in South Asia as part of the US–China Joint Statement. South Asia constitutes India’s immediate neighborhood, and America’s interests in the region are far more aligned with India than they are with China. Stabilising Afghanistan and ensuring that it never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists is one example of the convergence of US–Indian strategic interests in the region. If the US is to forge a lasting partnership with India, it must start by recognising India’s predominant interests in South Asia, even as it promotes peace, stability, and economic progress throughout the Subcontinent.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia, and Dean Cheng is Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs, in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.